Our new support staff are taking on cases to help social workers, not undermine them

By training people that aren't qualified social workers we can address a number of key recruitment challenges facing children's services


by Wendi Ogle-Welbourn, corporate director, people and communities, Peterborough City Council

Our approach to improving children’s services in Peterborough has attracted attention since appearing in a Community Care article, particularly our recruitment of more team support workers.

We’ve had very encouraging and positive feedback. We’ve also had some critical comments that I feel stem from a lack of clarity about our plans, so it’s good to have the chance to to explain a little more about how the initiative will work in practice.

First, we need to be clear about our motives. This isn’t about trying to undermine our social workers.

Social workers are vital, and always will be. But by training people that aren’t qualified social workers – but may well have qualifications in other areas – we can address a number of key issues that are affecting every council in the country.

The recruitment challenge

The biggest of those is the challenge to recruit and keep high quality, experienced social workers. A national shortage of qualified practitioners means they’re in high demand. You can attract them with good pay, but if caseloads are too high, they won’t stay.

That’s historically led to a reliance on agency staff: not only is that expensive, it can create challenges in consistency and relationship-building for the children and families we work with.

By creating new practitioner roles (team support workers or TSWs), we can address that and share caseloads more widely.

The TSWs take on less complex cases, under close supervision from team managers. They add huge value here, by building relationships with children and families that may be facing challenges linked to mental health, substance abuse or neglect.

In the four months of our pilot to date, caseloads for qualified staff have reduced from 25 to 19. TSWs hold about 15 cases each.

A more representative workforce

We’ve also been able to diversify our team through this approach to become more representative of the community.

Peterborough is one of the UK’s fastest growing cities and, today, more than 120 languages are spoken by its residents. The new approach enables us to bring in people that already live here and may represent particular communities. That way we benefit from their local knowledge and insights.

We will also gain a more diverse range of skillsets. Many of those in the new practitioner roles have prior experience in education, police work, childcare or youth support, which put them in a strong position to provide excellent support both to families and colleagues.

By freeing up social workers from areas of work where risks are lower, they are able to devote more of their time and expertise working with the children and families who have the most complex needs.

We anticipate that this will have a positive impact on outcomes, as well as making workloads more manageable for a very busy service. The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive and our practitioners really recognise the value that the new staff are adding.

Attracting new staff

That in itself should help us retain our practitioners for longer. But we continue to work hard to attract exceptional social workers to the city and showcase the benefits of joining our team.

As Community Care’s article identified, we’re also implementing a retention scheme for new joiners. Those already part of the team will benefit from a new bonus programme too, designed as a commitment reward scheme.

For us, this means that those in roles that are the most difficult to recruit stand to gain the greatest benefits. We hope the scheme will both motivate our advanced practitioners and incentivise others to progress their careers with us.

We’re proud to be innovating to address the ongoing challenges in children’s services – and continuing our commitment as a responsible and supportive employer. Most important of all, we’re driving improvements in how we support our children and families in the city.

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